On July 18, a teenage boy was brutally beheaded in Aleppo, in plain sight, by Nour al-Din Zenki, an armed opposition group that formerly received military support from the United States. A few hours after this horrific incident, the group released a statement condemning the beheading and absolving itself of any responsibility for the actions committed by the Zenki fighters. This public condemnation appeared to be the result of direct pressure on the group by numerous activists, civil-society groups, and local media. Although the statement cannot undo the horrific war crime committed by the fighters, it is a clear sign that armed groups can still be pressured by civil society and media to rethink—and in this case even publicly regret—their crimes. However, absent real accountability in Syria, the violence will continue to escalate and only worsen with time.
Nour al-Din Zenki was formed in late 2011 and participated in the Battle of Aleppo in 2012. In early 2014, the Zenki movement declared ISIS as an enemy and fought the terrorist group in Aleppo. It benefited from U.S. military and financial support in 2014 and 2015, and may still be supported by the United States.
The July 18 beheading is not the first incident of its kind. Armed opposition groups in Syria have committed numerous human-rights violations that have been documented in reports by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and others. These groups include factions like Ahrar al-Sham or groups that received support from the United States like the People's Protection Units (YPG). Just last week, Amnesty International published a report on human-rights violations by armed groups in Aleppo and Idlib, in which it named Nour al-Din Zenki and Ahrar al-Sham, along with Jabhat al-Nusra and other radical groups, as involved in the abduction, torture and killing of activists, journalists, and civilians. An article in the LA Times published shortly after the report featured statements from both Zenki and Ahrar officials, declaring that their groups do not tolerate human-rights abuses. The officials also stated that in fact, they would call on Amnesty International and other human rights groups to do their due diligence in reaching out to these armed opposition groups and holding them accountable using the evidence they collect.
The international community has an important role to play here. With the understanding that armed opposition groups rely on local and international approval to receive support and to remain in existence, both local and international actors must hold these groups accountable for any human-rights violations. In the midst of the chaos that is now Syria, war criminals may feel that they can act beyond the confines of the law, without accountability. But letting them know not only that they will be prosecuted—if not today, then tomorrow—but also that such actions will deprive them of much-needed material and political support, may prevent the armed groups from committing further atrocities.
It is clear that many armed groups, even those categorized as moderate, have radical elements within them now. Often, the voices of the moderates are drowned out by actions such as this week’s awful beheading. It is critical to prevent this radicalization of moderate opposition groups, and to preserve their compliance with human-rights standards.
If all armed opposition groups are blanket-categorized as radicals, it hurts Syrian civil society as well as the armed opposition itself. With the constraints of public judgment removed, these groups no longer feel the need to remain moderate or steer clear of committing war crimes. At that point, civilians and civil society often become the first targets and victims in the attempts to maintain order and control. For this reason, it is important for human-rights groups, civil-society actors, media and activists, to maintain nuance in characterizing the armed opposition and their actions, in order to avoid categorizing them—and as a result, pushing them towards collaboration with—more radical factions.
When civil-society leaders are pounding on the doors of the armed opposition leaders, demanding explanations for why war crimes have been committed, it pushes these entities to reevaluate their actions. Why? Because these armed groups claim to exist for the protection of the people, and in many instances, their own members are from the local area they are protecting. They feel a personal responsibility and accountability to the people. Thus, some armed groups modify their tactics based on feedback from civil society. For this reason, when calls for accountability are made public and remain ongoing (by both international and local media), there is room to deter armed groups from committing human rights violations. Establishing channels of communications with moderate elements inside these factions can ultimately help push the group as a whole towards moderation.
Crimes such as these are heinous and should be named so, but the United States and the international community should condemn them and leverage them for public accountability without either disengaging entirely or characterizing all armed opposition groups as extremist. On a broader scale, this accountability is flawed and at times even counterproductive if the regime that has carried out war crimes and industrial-scale killing, committed widespread atrocities, systematically detained and tortured tens of thousands of civilians, and displaced hundreds of thousands is not equally held to account for its human rights violations. So long as the regime is permitted to act with impunity, armed groups on the ground, including Jabhat al-Nusra, feel entitled to do what is necessary to assert their military strength and maintain control of their territory. In this do-nothing scenario—for both the regime and opposition armed groups alike—we will witness even more human-rights violations in Syria and other conflict zones—because we are setting a precedent that the perpetrators can get away with their crimes. The only beneficiaries of this will be the radical groups, who will exploit this anything-goes environment to produce a vicious cycle of violence and counterviolence in the name of defeating tyranny.
Ibrahim Al Assil is a resident fellow at the Middle East Institute. He tweets at @iassil.
Image: Nour al Din Zenki logo. Still via Youtube.